The New International Encyclopædia/Sealing

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SEALING. An important industry, chiefly of Alaska, notable for the international complications to which it has given rise. The Alaskan seal fishery is the most valuable of its kind in the world, and was one of the chief considerations that induced the United States to purchase Alaska from Russia in 1867. It has afforded considerable revenue to the United States by the lease of the privilege of taking seals, in fact an amount in excess of the price paid for Alaska, and gives employment to large numbers of natives. From 1870 to 1890 the seal fisheries, ‘carefully guarded and preserved,’ yielded 100,000 skins a year. The company to which the administration of the fisheries was intrusted by a lease from the Government paid a rental of $50,000 per annum and in addition thereto $2.62½ per skin for the total number taken. The skins were transported to London to be dressed and prepared for the markets of the world, and the business had grown so large that the earnings of English laborers since the acquisition of Alaska by the United States had amounted by 1890 to $12,000,000. Then came the depredations of Canadian vessels with their indiscriminate slaughter of the seals, so that the Government was compelled to reduce by 40 per cent. the number that could be taken, while the actual number taken came to be far short of the number allowed.

During the breeding season the colony of seals have a habit of crossing from their fixed habitation on the Alaskan shore to the Pribilof Islands, also the property of the United States, for the purpose of producing and rearing their young. In making this passage they cross a portion of the Bering Sea, which is considerably more than three miles outside of either shore, and therefore beyond the usual limit of jurisdiction recognized as belonging to any particular nation. Beginning in about 1886, it became the practice of certain Canadian vessels to intercept the passing seals while beyond the three-mile limit and shoot them in the water, often killing both male and female. As a result of this ruthless course it became evident that the fisheries were in a fair way to be wantonly destroyed together with the resulting industries so valuable both to the United States and Great Britain. As soon as these depredations became known to the Government of the United States, during the first administration of President Cleveland, a proposal was made to the Government of Great Britain that a convention be entered into between the two nations, in which Russia should he invited to join, for the purpose of restricting the season during which seals could be taken and prescribing a period which covered the breeding time during which they could not be molested. Great Britain and Russia promised their concurrence, but an unexpected obstacle occurred in the opposition of the Canadian Government, whose subjects were profiting by the depredation. The Canadian objections could not be overcome, and the scheme had to be abandoned. The Government of the United States was therefore compelled to assert its authority over the business of sealing or suffer the destruction of the seal herd. In August, 1886, three British vessels were seized in the Bering Sea by a United States cruiser for taking seals in a part of the sea from 45 to 115 miles from land. The British Government protested and the captures were restored. A prolonged diplomatic controversy with Great Britain now ensued, in the course of which the United States took the ground that the waters in which the seizures were made did not constitute a part of the open sea, but were within the jurisdiction of the United States. An attempt was made to show that Russia had treated the Bering Sea as mare clausum first to the fifty-fifth degree of north latitude and later to the fifty-first degree, and that whatever rights she possessed in this respect passed to the United States by the cession of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands in 1867. The question was at once raised whether the cession included all the waters east of the meridian mentioned as the boundary between the United States and Russia, or whether it referred only to the lands and islands within those limits together with the ordinary territorial waters. Secretary Boutwell, in 1872, took the view that the jurisdiction of the United States did not extend beyond the ordinary three-mile limit. In 1886 this opinion was reversed by Secretary Manning, who announced that jurisdiction would be asserted over the entire Bering Sea east of the meridian mentioned. In 1889 Mr. Blaine became Secretary of State, and entered upon a long diplomatic controversy with the British Ambassador, Sir Julian Pauncefote, in regard to the matter. Other grounds than mare clausum were now put forth in defense of the position of the United States. The stand was taken that the Canadian practice was contra bonos mores, a practice which involved a serious and permanent injury to the rights of the Government and people of the United States. It was further asserted that the United States had a right of property in the seals by reason of its ownership of the coast on which they live and of the islands to which they regularly resort for the purpose of producing and rearing their young; that this property interest was claimed and exercised by Russia until ceded to the United States, and that Great Britain had impliedly recognized it by abstaining from all interference therein until about the year 1886. In view of this right the United States asserted the claim to protect on the high seas such property from wanton destruction by individuals, and that it was in a sense, the trustee thereof for the benefit of mankind.

In view of the pending negotiations for the settlement of the dispute by arbitration, a modus vivendi was agreed to on June 15, 1891. By this the depredations were ordered to he discontinued for a period of one year. Finally an arbitration treaty was concluded February 29, 1892, providing for a reference of the questions in dispute to a commission of seven persons, two appointed by the President of the United States, two appointed by the Queen of England, one by the King of Sweden, one by the President of the French Republic, and one by the King of Italy. The arbitrators met in Paris in the spring of 1893. The United States was represented by able counsel, including Hon. E. J. Phelps, Hon. James C. Carter, and Mr. Frederick R. Coudert. When the evidence was before the tribunal it was plain that the United States had a very weak case with regard to the claim of exclusive jurisdiction in the Bering Sea, and it was not strongly pressed by the counsel of the United States. The real question, therefore, and the one upon which the chief argument was directed, was the claim of the United States to the right of property in the seals and the right of protecting them beyond the three-mile limit. The tribunal decided that Russia never asserted or exercised any exclusive jurisdiction over the Bering Sea beyond the three-mile limit; that Great Britain did not recognize any such claim; and that the United States had no right to the protection of or property in the seals frequenting the islands of the United States in the Bering Sea when found outside the three-mile limit. On the latter point, the American commissioners, Justice Harlan and Senator Morgan, dissented. The tribunal, however, prescribed a series of regulations for preserving the seal herds which were to be binding upon and enforced by both nations. They limit pelagic sealing as to time, place, and manner by fixing a zone of sixty miles around the Pribilof Islands within which the seals are not to be molested at any time, and from May 1st to July 31st each year they are not to be pursued anywhere in Bering Sea. Only licensed sailing vessels are permitted to engage in fur-sealing, and the use of firearms or explosives is interdicted. The regulations are to remain in force until abolished by mutual agreement, but are to be examined every five years with a view to modification. Consult: Snow, Topics in American Diplomacy (Boston, 1894); Phelps, in Harper's Monthly Magazine, April, 1891.